Stephen Harper’s incoherent approach to crime

Posted on June 29, 2014 in Governance Policy Context – Opiniojn/Commentary – Stephen Harper’s high-handed personal attack on the chief justice of Canada is part of a pattern of contempt for legal institutions and the law itself.
Jun 28 2014.   By: Edward L. Greenspan Anthony N. Doob

Stephen Harper’s high-handed personal attack on the chief justice of Canada is part of a pattern of contempt for legal institutions and the law itself. Harper’s so-called “defeats” at the Supreme Court of Canada illustrate his disrespect for principles of fairness and his complete lack of interest in attempting to create coherent, sensible laws.

In one recent case, the Supreme Court decided that fair credit toward an offender’s sentence was appropriate for those in pretrial detention. In another, it decided that Parliament cannot change, for those already serving their sentences, the minimum time to be spent in penitentiary before applying for release. Such unanimous decisions should surprise no one.

Harper’s approach to criminal law reform is best described as a confused mess. In one of his early bills, he raised the mandatory minimum sentence for carrying out violent crimes like robbery with a handgun from four years to five years (though for inexplicable reasons, the four-year mandatory minimum for robberies with shotguns or high-powered rifles was left unchanged). Does he really think that there are people who would be deterred by a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but would not be deterred by four years? Is using a shotgun in a robbery really less serious than using a handgun?

More recently, the government introduced a new law dealing with harming police dogs and horses. If passed, the sentence for injuring a police dog will automatically be consecutive to other charges arising out of the same incident (e.g., resisting arrest), but if there is no dog or horse and two police officers are assaulted, the sentences need not be consecutive.

The government has shown interest in the offence of accessing child pornography. Until 2006, the maximum penalty for this offence was five years in prison with no minimum. In 2006, a mandatory minimum was added. In August 2012, the Conservatives increased the mandatory minimum without any evidence of the value in doing so. In February 2014 the government introduced its Tougher Penalties for Child Predators Act saying it will “better protect children.” This time they increased both the maximum penalty for this offence and they increased the minimum penalties yet again. The act’s title was its only attempt to justify legislative change.

Given the voluminous research that has examined the relationship between crime and sentence severity, it is dishonest to suggest that these changes will better protect children. The prime minister understands the value of evidence: After all, he urged parents to follow the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of vaccinations for their children. In criminal law, apparently, evidence is trumped by political needs.

The criminal justice system needs thoughtful comprehensive legislation dealing in an integrated manner with difficult issues. In the past, governments — Conservative and Liberal — did this. In 2003, Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act replaced the discredited Young Offenders Act. Criticism of youth justice laws virtually disappeared. In 1992, a Conservative majority government passed comprehensive legislation dealing with penitentiaries, parole and other forms of release from prison. A major integration of Canada’s drug laws was introduced by the Liberals a few years later.

Absent from Harper’s approach is any evidence that Conservatives care about the criminal law or the operation of the criminal justice system. There are many areas of the law that need attention. Canada’s pretrial detention laws result in provincial prisons with more than half of their prisoners awaiting trial rather than serving sentences. Court delays cause injustice to accused people and victims. Canada’s parole system is criticized by almost everyone. Legitimate concern has been raised about whether Canada’s sexual assault laws are appropriate for the 21st century. None of these issues is easy to address.

No set of proposals will make everyone happy. Serious study, consultation and compromise will be necessary in each case, and yet there may be no short-term political benefit. Not surprisingly, the Harper government shows no interest in taking on these problems in a thoughtful manner.

Instead, the prime minister attacks the integrity of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and, simultaneously, makes the criminal law more incoherent. Whether this reflects incompetence on the government’s part or the triumph of politics over good judgment does not really matter: Canadians and their justice system are not well served.

Edward L. Greenspan practises criminal law in Toronto. Anthony N. Doob is a professor of criminology (emeritus) at the University of Toronto.

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2 Responses to “Stephen Harper’s incoherent approach to crime”

  1. Emily says:

    In the article, you describe how Stephen Harper fails to be effective when it comes to the criminal justice system. I feel that you have made some good points in that the minor changes made over the past few years aren’t deterring crime. As it stands taxpayers pay for offenders to sit in jail, yet a large amount of criminals keep offending. There is clearly a need for change in the system but we need more impactful changes or at least consistent ones.

    In my opinion, the bigger issue here is that no matter how many times Stephen Harper and the Conservative government change different criminal sentences, Canada will still have those same offenders coming out of jail and offending again. Therefore, Stephen Harper should revaluate the criminal system. Why not take a different approach to the criminal system by having people who commit petty crimes go through a rehabilitation system in addition to their sentence. The main goal being that these offenders stop offending and stay out of the jail system. As a result, there would be less petty crimes which equals to less people in jail. I also believe that even the serious offenders should have to go through this rehabilitation, even if they are serving a life sentence. A rehabilitation system would have its costs, but at least Canada would be a safer place to live and it would also help offenders contribute in society once more. Stephen Harper should think of the bigger issue, make the system more effective and help work towards a safer Canada.

  2. Crystal says:

    Looking at this article through a social work perspective, I favour the opinion of the author. While some people may believe that harsher punishments for crime are needed as a type of deterrence, I believe that we need to look more closely at root problems associated with crimes. When Steven Harper implemented Bill C-10, he took away judge’s discretion when enforcing mandatory minimum sentences. For example, if a person has not been in any trouble with the law previously and finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, the judge’s ability to give a lesser sentences has been revoked. Also included in Bill C-10 was the elimination of pardons, Steven Harper replaced them with record suspensions. The wait time to apply for record suspensions has raised to five years for summery convictions and ten years for indictable offences. A ten year wait time for a record suspension, will hold anyone back even if the effort is being made to turn their lives around.

    If harsher punishment resulted in lower crime rates then Canada’s recidivism rates should be low, but they aren’t. Our courts are being flooded with people who live with poverty, mental illness, drugs/alcohol dependencies, unemployment and homelessness. Steven Harper’s approach to crime and punishment does not reflect the needs of people suffering from these types of situations, I believe Bill C-10 is aimed to voters who are uneducated in crime and social welfare. Although, Steven Harper’s approach does support conservative ideologies of personal responsibilities and the ability of the individual to solve their own problems. With the right government in place in the future the creation of new laws in regards to crime or social policies perhaps we can strive to create justice instead of harsh punishment.


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